The Washington Post

Gun violence as a public health issue

With last month's controversy over Vivek Murthy's nomination for surgeon general still fresh, the nation's second-largest physicians group reaffirmed Thursday that it considers firearm violence a public health issue and issued a wide-ranging set of recommendations to address the deaths and injuries caused by guns.

The timing appears to be coincidental. But like Murthy — whose nomination was blocked in large part by a National Rifle Association offensive over his views on guns — the American College of Physicians believes doctors must take action against the 32,000 deaths and 74,000 injures caused by guns in the United States each year.

Doctor Vivek Murthy stands among other bystanders during the first day of legal arguments over the Affordable Care Act outside the Supreme Court in Washington, in this March 26, 2012 file photo. REUTERS/Jason Reed/Files (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS HEALTH) - Vivek Murthy (Jason Reed/Reuters)

To support their view that guns are a public health issue, the association of 137,000 internal medicine physicians (Murthy is an internist himself) noted that there are about 11,000 homicides, 19,000 suicides and more than 2,000 fatal accidents involving guns every year. The total is down from its 1993 peak, and the number of gun homicides has declined even more rapidly, but the figure is still one of the highest in the developed world.

The average of 88 gun deaths per day is "a good-sized airplane crash every three days," said Molly Cooke, the organization's president.

Moreover, the position paper noted, a study of three U.S. cities shows that for every time a gun is used for self-defense, there are four accidental shootings, seven criminal assaults or homicides and 11 attempted or completed suicides. In 12 states and the District of Columbia, firearm-related deaths exceed deaths from car accidents.

Some of the group's recommendations are sure to draw fire from gun-rights groups, including:

• Doctors should counsel patients on the risks of having guns in the home, particularly if children, adolescents, people with dementia, the mentally ill or people with substance abuse problems live there.

• Universal background checks for gun-buyers, a ban on guns that don't show up on metal detectors and tracers and tags on guns and ammunition.

• Laws to ban the sale and manufacture of guns for civilians that are designed with features that "increase their rapid killing capacity," i.e. assault weapons and semiautomatic weapons.  Cooke called assault weapons "rapid slaughter machines" that were developed for military purposes. "We really could not persuade ourselves that there was a good reason for the average Joe Citizen to have a gun like that," Cooke said.

• Built-in trigger locks and signals that guns are loaded.

My call to the NRA for comment was not returned.

Lenny Bernstein covers health and medicine. He started as an editor on the Post’s National Desk in 2000 and has worked in Metro and Sports.

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